Unlimited time off? More companies giving it a shot - Omaha.com
Published Wednesday, July 10, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 7:15 am
Unlimited time off? More companies giving it a shot

LINCOLN — Like many companies across the Midlands, Talent Plus finds summer an ideal time for employees to take off.

But unlike many other companies, employees at the Lincoln-based global human resources consulting firm don't go through the formal process of accruing their leave. They check with their manager, coordinate with others in their department and take time off from a limitless bank of days and hours. In short, co-chairman Kimberly Rath said, no questions asked, as long as the work gets done.

“Are they meeting their client responsibilities? If they are, let's celebrate it,” she said.

The company is one of a number locally — others include Gallup, Home Instead and a number of technology companies — that are adopting flexible time-off policies, a trend nationally led by the likes of IBM, Netflix and HubSpot. Generally, the “honor system” policies allow employees to take off an unlimited amount of vacation time, sick time or both as long as the employee's duties are covered.

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Unlimited leave is “one type of innovative approach a company can take to really increase engagement or productivity,” said Lisa Horn, an expert on workplace flexibility who serves as co-director of the Society for Human Resource Management's Workplace Flexibility Initiative and is to speak about the topic at Blue Cross Blue Shield in Aksarben Village this morning.

In Gallup's latest study involving detailed surveys of workers, engaged employees who had a lot of flextime at work had a 44 percent higher level of well-being than disengaged employees with very little to no flextime. And of the work benefits Gallup looked at, flextime was most correlated to overall well-being among employees.

The drawback is that some people never feel like they're really on vacation. A CareerBuilder.com study of 5,600 workers in 2011 found that 12 percent of people said they feel guilty when they're not at work and on vacation. Of people taking vacation, about 30 percent plan to work while on vacation and 30 percent will contact work while they're off, which was up from 25 percent in 2010.

Area companies that have a flexible time-off policy say they like it. Not one reported problems, saying they have trustworthy employees who can manage their time in an unstructured way.

Employees seem to appreciate the policy, too. Both Home Instead and Lincoln-based video software and app company Hudl have grabbed best places to work honors in their size categories, with their leave policies cited.

Though popping up more, the unlimited leave trend has yet to take off.

In an employee benefits survey by the Society for Human Resource Management of more than 500 HR professionals across the country who work in numerous industries, just 1 percent said they use an unlimited paid vacation system. Fewer than 1 percent reported plans of implementing the system next year.

Similarly, only 3 percent of companies use unlimited paid sick time and none said they were planning to use the system next year.

Still, Horn said there's reason to believe unlimited leave policies are on the rise. She's calling workplace flexibility “a business imperative because of the benefits a company will reap.” Flexible policies like unlimited leave impact a company's bottom line by positively affecting employee health, recruitment, retention and overhead costs, she said.

Talent Plus came up with its policy in 2010 after seeing repeatedly on an internal survey that employees weren't happy with its then-vacation policy of 10 days of vacation for all employees, regardless of seniority or position. First-year employees got five days of vacation. The company already had unlimited sick time.

To see how an unlimited vacation policy might work, Talent Plus formed a committee to analyze the company's sick leave data. The average amount taken was just six-tenths of one day, said Bill Kerrey, chairman of the technology team who led the committee on the company's leave policy.

“You didn't have to go very far to see that the trust that was given by Talent Plus was being returned by the associates,” he said.

The committee then crafted a survey on its vacation policy. They found that about three-fourths of employees spent, by choice, at least one or two hours per day working even when they took vacation. The company also realized that it already was bending the 10-day policy for employees who wanted, for example, to take a trip of a lifetime, even if it surpassed the traditional amount of time allotted.

Since 2011, Talent Plus employees have used an average of 10.3 absences, including vacation and sick days. The company also gives employees more holiday days than traditional companies. For example, when the Fourth of July fell on a Thursday this year, employees were given Thursday and Friday off for a four-day weekend.

Home Instead, which employes 140 people in Omaha, modeled its policy after Talent Plus and started unlimited leave last year for just its leadership team. After liking the results, the company in January implemented the policy for all employees. Six months in, it's too early to tell whether employees are taking more or less time off than before, said senior director of human resources Jean Lynn.

Gallup began its policy in the 1970s. With 550 employees on its Riverfront campus and 400 more at two call centers in the Omaha area, leave ranges from five days to 30 or more days per year, with the average about 11 days off. The open policy is part of the company's belief of “working hard and playing hard” and making the most of the 8,760 hours in a year, spokesman Kelly Slater said.

John Wirtz, co-founder and chief product officer of Hudl, said an unlimited leave policy is a good option for his company because it keeps employees happy and productive and also attracts prospective employees. The policy allows Hudl, which makes highlight films, play diagrams and coaching presentations for coaches, athletes and recruiters, to hire the best of the best, even if that talented employee has an overseas trip planned or a young child to spend time with, he said.

“That's key for us. We've built an amazing team here. We can truly say we're hiring top talent,” he said.

Wirtz estimates employees take off an average of about three weeks, but he sees the system used most for people who need to run errands during the day without worrying about sacrificing a half or partial day off. The company's only problem with the system is ensuring employees are actually taking time off, but that's a problem that existed even in Hudl's early days of allocating a set number of days.

For people who think the system could easily be abused, Wirtz counters that such an employee probably has “a ton of other problems” and isn't the right fit for the company.

He believes tracking time spent or not spent at work is “the most rudimentary way” to monitor an employee's success. Instead, the 102-employee company looks at outcomes: Are coaches saving time because of his employees? Are they happy with the product and service? Are more athletes visiting Hudl for their needs?

Like Talent Plus, Hudl found inspiration in a workplace culture presentation by Netflix in which an employee asked why a company would track someone's time off when they don't monitor the time an employee is at work.

For Hudl, being an outcome-focused company means setting up employees for a low-stress work experience. In addition to unlimited leave, the company caters lunch to its Haymarket office in Lincoln each day, hosts quarterly retreats and brings its remote team to Lincoln about every six weeks. The company also owns two downtown lofts for out-of-town employees to use when they're in town.

Horn cautioned that the unlimited leave policies won't work for everyone. It's easier for technology or consulting companies but may not be possible in manufacturing or service industries with a constant focus on customers or a production line.

Plus, it's a scary idea for a company that's never considered it. A native Nebraskan, Horn said she's observed hard-working, traditional Midwesterners among the slowest to come around to the idea.

“Working differently doesn't mean we're working any less,” she said. “You can still have that badge of being a hard worker. ... Visibility sometimes equals value, but your most productive employees may not necessarily be the ones you see the most. And I think that's how work is going to get done going forward.”

Rath, who started Talent Plus along with her husband Doug, Sandy Maxwell and William Hall, about 25 years ago after working at Gallup, said she can see the effects of flexible policies like unlimited leave in her employees. The company, which has 94 employees in Lincoln, 32 in its extended community and 44 contracted workers, is on track to double in size in the next five years.

“We tap dance to work every day,” she said. “What else could you ask for? It's fun.”

Contact the writer: Emily Nohr

emily.nohr@owh.com    |   402-444-1192    |  

Emily covers Papillion, La Vista, Gretna and Springfield, as well as metro-area roads.

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